Oxford For Europe
3 October 2020
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“For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across – which happened to be the Earth – where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.”
– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The EU-UK negotiations may be about to enter what is commonly known as the “tunnel”. Michel Barnier has recently taken to calling this the “submarine”, a very apposite term, because, as I am informed, nuclear-armed submarines have to maintain radio silence while on patrol in order to remain undetectable. It calls to mind the picture of intense secret negotiations, ending with (to mix metaphors) a rabbit being pulled out of the hat and the elusive deal being presented to a waiting and applauding public. Well, we will see…
Pundits seem to be marginally more optimistic that some kind of deal will emerge, although it may only take a “bare bones” form. This may possibly make a difference at least in terms of morale and in terms of the quality of the “relationship”, if we can call it that, between the two sides going forward. For British industry it may make the difference between disaster and complete annihilation, but sadly we do not often hear experts being any more optimistic than that.
The situation is of course infinitely more complex than any of the advocates of Brexit ever pretended to believe. However, it appears that negotiations boiled down to three things: state aid, fisheries, and, as of last month, The UK government’s decision to go back on the commitments it made in the Withdrawal Agreement .
State aid is one of the aspects of the “level playing field” of which we have heard so much. It is very odd that this is the hill on which a Conservative government is prepared to die. After all, it is not something which features high in its policy playbook. In fact it is exactly the opposite of what Thatcher spent her life fighting for. The current EU state aid rules, which our current Prime Minister seems to find so toxic, were to a great extent written by Thatcher and her successors. Even more damningly, while Frost was grandstanding in Brussels over state aid, Liz Truss effectively signed away what he was fighting for by agreeing a deal with the Japanese which committed the UK government to give them precisely what he is refusing to give the EU. To say that there is a lack of joined up thinking in this government is to state the obvious.
Fisheries are something which have assumed an almost talismanic significance. There is a traditional glorification of the grittiness and heroism of fishermen (and women). This has been exploited shamelessly by the tabloid press. Ironically, 53% of UK fishing is actually in Scotland, so if Scottish independence happens it will be lost to the UK government anyway. However there are three other crucial problems over the fishing argument.
First of all in terms of GDP fishing is tiny, about half the size of the biscuit industry, £1 billion or so per annum. I know that may sound a lot, but the turnover of the car industry alone is over 80 billion, not to mention aerospace, haulage, agriculture, and of course the even larger service industries. All of these have their survival threatened by a no deal Brexit. To say that you are going to allow negotiations to collapse simply because of the fishing industry is to make the same grievous error of scale as Douglas Adams’s starship captain. Of course this is far from being the first time that errors of scale have been made by the Brexiteers. We were told that EU membership was costing us a fortune, ie a net of £10 billion per year. This sounds a lot until you compare it with the actual cost so far of Brexit so far, which is at least 20 times higher at £200 billion (yes, £200,000,000,000) and counting. That is more than the UK paid into the EU in all its 47 years of membership
The second problem is that any victory over fishing would be entirely pyrrhic. There are separate agreements which would make it impossible to bar EU vessels from fishing legally in British waters anyway. It is simplistic to say, in this day and age that we can simply build a physical wall around our fishing waters and nobody will ever penetrate this. And that, of course, is even without mentioning illegal fishing.
The third is that , while a successful agreement on fishing might just about happen, and UK fishermen might well be able to increase their catch, they will struggle to sell it and they will face the option of lower prices or allowing it to rot in the ports. The reason is that 60% of fish caught by UK fleets are actually sold to the EU, and much of the fish consumed in this country is actually imported. This is simply a result of differing tastes in fish (we like cod, tuna, haddock and shrimp, while Europeans tend to favour herring and mackerel). If you can’t sell your fish for a reasonable price, or it becomes unviable due to import tariffs of up to 25%, then what is the point catching it?
Fourthly, one look at the map will show that because of an accident of geography UK fishing waters are disproportionately large and by agreeing not to fish in them the EU would be making a far bigger concession than it could realistically be expected to make.
We are now informed that HMG has finally, for the first time, bowed to the inevitable and offered a deferral of 3 years over fishing. Is this a real concession or it it just kicking the can down the road? Time will tell.
Finally, there is the EU Withdrawal Agreement. Both parties signed this – we are told – in good faith, yet the Single Market Bill, which barefacedly breaches it, has now passed its third reading in the Commons. The EU has initiated court action, as of course it always said it would, and even Brexiteers like Michael Howard admit that in these proceedings the UK does not have a leg to stand on. The Internal Market Bill represents a piece of brinkmanship. Johnson, Cummings and Frost believe that it will concentrate the minds of the Europeans. The reverse is the case and indeed they are lucky that the EU side did not simply walk away from the table, on the reasonable grounds that there is no point negotiating with people who break their promises. It will very likely spend some weeks being debated in the Lords, and will return shorn of its most controversial clauses, ie 42 to 45. If a deal has been reached in the meantime then presumably the strategy is for the bill to be passed without its controversial elements. However, even if that happens – and it is far from being a given – the UK government would have been guilty of a massive breach of trust, and probably also of international law, by proposing the bill in the first place.
To try to draw an equivalence by saying that the EU is negotiating in bad faith is mischievous: nobody is claiming that they are acting illegally, and the accusation simply boils down to the fact that they are not giving the UK all it is asking for. Even Lord Frost has had to admit recently, for example, that the EU was acting within its rights on the rules of origin, when it declined the UK request that it should pretend that UK exports containing non-European components were actually British.
People like Ann Widdecombe, from a position of blind ignorance, persist in telling us that the EU have so much to lose that they are bound to cave in, and that the Single Market Bill was an effective negotiating strategy. There is no evidence whatever for this but they will go on saying it forever if the gamble works. Either way, the UK is manifestly the weaker of the two negotiating partners and if it wants to see its industries survive it is the one who will have to make the concessions. From its captain’s perspective, the Starship fleet may well look enormous, but from the perspective of the small dog and everyone else, it most certainly does not.
Wake up and smell the coffee.
The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe